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Vernon Wayne Howell, a Texas musician and a member of the Branch Davidian sect of Seventh-day Adventists, forcibly installs himself as the leader of the Branch Davidian sect near Waco, Texas. Howell is a self-described loner and dyslexic who dropped out of high school, but taught himself the Bible, memorizing most of it by age 12. He was expelled from the Church of Seventh-day Adventists in 1979 for being a bad influence on the church’s young people, and in 1981 joined the Waco group of Branch Davidians in its 77-acre compound, “Mount Carmel,” on the outskirts of the city. Howell had an affair with the leader of the group, self-described prophetess Lois Roden, some 30 years older than himself.
Power Struggle - After Roden died, Howell began a lengthy struggle for control of the group with Roden’s son George Roden. In late 1987, Roden digs up the body of a member, Anna Hughes, and issues a challenge to Howell: the one who could raise her from the dead is the one to lead the community. Instead, Howell asks the local authorities to charge Roden with abusing a corpse. On November 3, Howell returns to the Mt. Carmel compound with seven male followers, all dressed in camouflage and bearing assault rifles, hunting rifles, shotguns, and ammunition. The two groups engage in a gunfight; during the exchange, Roden is shot in the chest and hands. Howell and his followers will be tried for attempted murder, but the others will be acquitted and Howell’s trial will end in a mistrial. In 1989, Roden will try to murder a man with an axe, and will be committed to a mental instutition for the rest of his life. By 1990, Howell will have established himself as the leader of the Waco Branch Davidians, and will legally change his name to David Koresh, explaining that he believes he is now the head of the Biblical House of David. Koresh is a Hebrew translation of “Cyrus,” the Persian king who allowed the Jews held captive in Babylon to return to Israel. (Applebome 3/1/1993; England and McCormick 3/3/1993; Dean M. Kelley 5/1995; PBS Frontline 10/1995)
Adventists Join Koresh at Waco Compound - Seventh-day Adventists and others from around the world will journey to Waco to join the Davidians, who all told number somewhere around 75. According to a multi-part series by the Waco Tribune-Herald based on the recollections and observations of former members (see February 27 - March 3, 1993), the Davidians gather at the compound to “await the end of the world.” The members believe that Koresh alone can open the so-called “Seven Seals” of Biblical prophecy, which will trigger the Apocalypse, destroy the world as we know it, and propel Koresh and his followers into heaven. The compound is heavily armed. (England and McCormick 3/3/1993) Most of the Davidians live communally in an L-shaped compound of beige buildings. A few of the more elderly members live in a trailer four miles from the main compound. The trailer has more amenities than the main building, which lacks central heating and indoor plumbing. The men live separately from the women and children. Members rise early, breakfasting together in a large cafeteria and then going to work. Some of the men have jobs in the Waco area, and many stay, working on what sect member Paul Fatta will describe as a three-year renovation of the compound but what law enforcement officials say is a network of tunnels and bunkers. The children are home-schooled by the women. (Hinds 3/6/1993)
Former Member: Koresh Brought Apocalyptic Mindset, Violence to Group - According to Davidian David Bunds, who will later leave the group, Koresh, or Howells as he is known, was something of a destabilizing factor from the time of his arrival. Bunds will later say: “We were a very reserved, very conservative group. There were no emotional displays. Then along came Vernon Howell. I remember my father said one day, ‘Well, that guy sounds like he’s going to end up saying he’s a prophet the way he’s acting.’” Bunds will later say that while he was enthralled for a time by Koresh’s personality and his apocalyptic preaching, he became increasingly disturbed at his insistence on having multiple “wives,” his stockpiling of more and more weapons, and the increasingly violent methods of “discipline” being meted out to “disobedient” children and adults alike (adults, Bunds and other “defectors” will later say, are physically beaten by Koresh’s cadre of militantly loyal “Mighty Men”). Bunds will be forced out of the group after questioning Koresh’s Biblical interpretations, and for taking a sect member as his wife against Koresh’s wishes. (Conway and Siegelman 1995, pp. 244-246)
Federal Raid, Siege - The Waco Branch Davidians will kill four federal agents attempting to arrest Koresh on gun and sexual abuse charges (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993); most of them, including Koresh, will die in a fiery conflagration after a 51-day standoff (see April 19, 1993). After the February 1993 raid, Waco Chamber of Commerce president Jack Stewart will say: “The sad part about this group is that it has evolved from the peaceful, pastoral group that it started as in the 1930s. Only since this most recent leader have they begun to acquire some of the weaponry and attitudes that they have.” (Applebome 3/1/1993)
The Waco Tribune-Herald begins what it calls the “Sinful Messiah” series of articles on Branch Davidian leader David Koresh, formerly Vernon Howell (see November 3, 1987 and After). Based on interviews with former members of the sect, the series accuses Koresh of being a “cult leader” who physically abuses children and takes underage brides, even raping one of them. (England and McCormick 3/3/1993; XTimeline 7/2010) Two weeks into the standoff, Newsweek will publish an article on Koresh and the Davidians that draws heavily on the Waco Tribune-Herald series. (Kantrowitz et al. 3/15/1993) An August 1992 investigation by the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (DPRS) found no evidence of such claims (see April 1992).
Sexual Abuse Claims - Koresh, the series claims, advocates polygamy for himself, declaring himself the husband of multiple females of the community. The articles say he claims to be entitled to 140 wives or more, can legitimately claim any of the women in the community, has fathered at least a dozen children, and that some of his brides are as young as 12 or 13. The sources claim that Koresh annulled all the marriages among the Davidians, and told the men that they would receive their “perfect mates” in heaven. For the time they are on Earth, he told them, only he would have wives. Koresh keeps the men and women rigidly separated except during Bible studies. (England and McCormick 3/3/1993; XTimeline 7/2010)
Physical Abuse Claims - The articles claim that Koresh beats children as young as eight months of age. Former Davidian Michelle Tom testified in a Michigan court custody case that Koresh beat her daughter Tarah Tom with a wooden spatula until the girl’s bottom was bruised and bloody. The girl had cried when placed on Koresh’s lap, Tom testified. A former Davidian who refuses to be identified confirms Tom’s story, saying that the little girl’s “bottom was completely black and blue.” During the same court case, Tom and other former Davidians claimed that Koresh was particularly harsh with his own son Cyrus. When Cyrus was three and living with Koresh (then Howell) in Pomona, California, Koresh once tied him to the garage for the night, after telling him that there were rats in the garage who liked to eat children. Tom and others recall hearing Cyrus scream as his father beat him.
Bringing the Apocalypse - Koresh, according to the articles, claims to be the Lamb of Heaven whose mystical task it is to open the Seven Seals of the Biblical Apocalypse, thus bringing about the end of the world. The Davidians, according to the articles, intend to slay all non-believers (whom Koresh calls “the Babylonians”) once the Apocalypse begins, and Koresh’s male children will rule at his side thereafter. Koresh says: “If the Bible is true, then I’m Christ. But so what? Look at 2,000 years ago. What’s so great about being Christ? A man nailed to the cross. A man of sorrow acquainted with grief. You know, being Christ ain’t nothing. Know what I mean?… If the Bible is true, I’m Christ. If the Bible is true. But all I want out of this is for people to be honest this time.” The sources say Koresh uses “mind control” techniques to indoctrinate his followers, including marathon sermons and Bible study sessions lasting up to 15 hours at a stretch. One former member who refuses to be named says of the sessions: “You don’t have time to think. He doesn’t give you time to think about what you’re doing. It’s just bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.” Other methods employed by Koresh include confusing, rapid-fire discourses about abstruse Biblical topics, and a propensity to force community members to listen to sermons at odd hours of the night. Another former member, also refusing to be named, says: “You felt like you were in the know. Others in the world might consider you average. Let them. They were unbelievers. But you knew something they didn’t—something that put you into the ultimate In Crowd, the ones who wouldn’t be taking a dip in the Lake of Fire.”
Sources - The sources for the article include Australians Marc Breault, described as a former “confidant” of Koresh’s who has spoken against Koresh since 1990; Breault’s wife Elizabeth Baranyi; and Jean Smith. Breault, an aspiring musician, admits to feeling resentment towards Koresh—he joined the group in hopes that he and Koresh, himself an accomplished musician, would form a successful rock band, an aspiration that would not be fulfilled. They are joined by former Indiana disk jockey David Jewell, who was never a member of the sect but who sued his ex-wife, Davidian Sherri Jewell, for custody of their daughter Kiri. Breault and other former members say Sherri Jewell was one of Koresh’s wives. Kiri lives in Michigan with her father, while Sherri remains with Koresh. (In 1995, Kiri Jewell will testify that she was raped by Koresh between the ages of 10 and 14—see July 21, 1995). Other sources include Robyn Bunds, one of Koresh’s first “wives” among the community (married to him at age 17, she says, when Koresh and his small group of followers lived in Pomona and La Verne, California). Bunds claims that Koresh told her he raped the 12-year-old sister of his wife Rachel Howell, who, Bunds says, crawled into bed with him to “get warm” and was forced to have sex with him. Koresh has denied the story, and claims to have had only two children, Cyrus and Star, both with his wife Rachel. However, birth certificates for many Davidian children are incomplete; the sources say that Koresh is the father of many of the children, and routinely has the mothers leave his name off the certificates. Bunds tells reporters: “When Vernon came along, he… said you had to give him all your money. You had to live on the property. You had to give up everything else. You had to give him your mind… your body.” She claims her parents gave well over $10,000 to Koresh’s sect and bought a house in Pomona for $100,000 in Koresh’s name (then Howell). She admits to having been jealous over having to share Koresh with his other wives, and says Koresh is the father of her son Shaun, whose birth name was Wisdom Bunds; she says Shaun is terrified of Koresh because he beat him. (Koresh says Bunds, not him, beat her son, an allegation which she admits, though she says Koresh also beat the child.) She says she left Koresh in Pomona after he began having sex with her mother Jeannine, and when he attempted to kidnap Shaun and raise him among the Waco Davidians. Jeannine Bunds is also a source, having left the Waco community shortly after her daughter left Koresh. (Don Bunds, Jeannine’s husband and Robyn’s father, remains in Waco with the Davidians.) Another source is Karl Henning or Hennig (the article uses both spellings), a Vancouver teacher who lived with the sect for two months. He says Koresh holds a “truly amazing accumulation of knowledge.” Also, the article relies on the recollections of Bruce Gent, a former Davidian who says he allowed Koresh to sleep with his teenaged daughter Nicole. Yet another source is Barbara Slawson, a member during the time of Koresh’s predecessors Lois and George Roden, who says she was never impressed with Koresh and left during the time he was solidfying his grasp on the leadership of the group. Slawson says she has two grandchildren in the group. “My primary reason for trying to help is the children,” Breault says. “They have no one else to help them. If people say we were stupid, well, that may be true. But the children aren’t.” Breault says he finally left the group after Koresh had sex with a 13-year-old Australian girl he had brought to Waco merely for sexual purposes. “I realized it wasn’t a matter of Biblical anything,” Breault later testifies during the Jewell custody case. “He just wanted to have sex with her.” Koresh says that Breault sees himself as a rival prophet attempting to convince his followers to join with him against Koresh, and says that Breault is the source of the stories of his alleged sexual relations with underage girls. Breault admits telling Australian Davidians that he, too, is a prophet, though he says he eventually confessed that he had lied to get the Davidians away from Koresh, and that for a time he attempted to create a breakaway, rival sect of the Davidians.
Emotional Control - Jeannine Bunds says Koresh does not physically restrain his members. “I’m over 21, intelligent,” she says. “I could have walked at any time. I chose to stay. He doesn’t keep you. You can leave. What you have to understand, though, is he keeps you by emotion. When you’re down there, it’s all so exciting. You don’t know what he’ll come up with next. I guess everyone is looking for Utopia, Shangri-La. You don’t want any problems. It wasn’t all bad times, you know. The people in this are great. They’ll give you the shirt off their back. They’re nice, like everyone else in the world. Except they believe this.”
Newspaper Asked to Hold Off Publishing Stories - Tribune-Herald managing editor Barbara Elmore says the newspaper put eight months of research into the stories, and held off printing them after federal authorities asked her “not to run anything.” The head of the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) task force investigating Koresh (see June-July 1992) says the stories did not influence the agency’s decision to raid the Davidian compound near Waco (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993). (England and McCormick 3/3/1993) After the BATF raid, Tribune-Herald editor Bob Lott defends his newspaper’s decision to publish the story, saying: “We’d been working on this story for eight months. It contained a lot of information the public ought to know. We decided it was time to let the public know about this menace in our backyard.… I’m under siege. There has been the suggestion that somehow we are responsible for this tragedy.” BATF spokeswoman Sharon Wheeler says the bureau has no complaints about Lott or the Tribune-Herald, but an unidentified BATF agent has allegedly said part of the responsibility for the deaths of four BATF agents during the raid rests on the local press. The bureau asked Lott to hold off publishing the series a month before the raid; the newspaper gave the bureau a day’s warning before running the first installment. (Carter 3/1/1993; Kantrowitz et al. 3/15/1993)
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